How much independence should I give my kids? Parenting advice from Care and Feeding.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Several years ago, you answered my letter about my daughter. I heeded the advice to get her into therapy, which was fortunate because her biological father died very traumatically at the end of 2019. For a little while, it was like the floor had dropped out from underneath us. But I’m happy to say that after meds and therapy and several years, I’ve got my kid back. She’ll probably never be the happy-go-lucky sunbeam that she was—she’s been through a lot—but she’s healing and happier than she’s been in years. She doesn’t fight us anymore, she comes to us for help and support, she’s got friends, she’s doing okay in school, and she has goals for her life. She’s even driving now. She smiles and laughs again, and she hasn’t blown up at her brother in quite some time.

Now that you have the back story, I have another question. We’re moving again this summer—1,900 miles away (unavoidable in my husband’s line of work)—and my daughter has asked to stay behind to finish her senior year (next school year). She adamantly does not want to move. Would it be insane to let her stay? I feel like she’s been through so much, and more importantly, has matured so much. She makes pretty middle-of-the-road grades, but she’s more than capable of getting herself off to school, caring for herself and cleaning up after herself. She would stay with our next-door neighbor, so she wouldn’t be alone. I just worry that either moving or leaving her would be destabilizing, and we’ve fought so hard to get her to a good place.

— Freaking Out in Florida

Dear Freaking Out,

I choose option three: you should stay back with your daughter and let your husband move for work. I appreciate that you want to stay with your partner, and I appreciate that your daughter has shown a lot of growth and stabilization in recent years. She is also on the doorstep to adulthood, and thus could soon be on her own anyway. But we must also acknowledge that 1,900 miles is a long way away. Like, a LONG way. And your daughter is still in the early years of recovering from trauma, grief, the pandemic, etc. I am just not sure that anyone can know how being separated from her family will impact her, and you would absolutely hate if you moved and later learned your daughter was suffering—nor could you get to her quickly if needed. I also don’t think moving her before senior year is ideal. There are so many traditions, rites of passage and closure tied up in the senior year of high school that she should have the option to experience if it’s at all possible. And not to go looking for trouble, but senior year can often involve a lot of high school…shenanigans. I have no idea if your daughter would go to keggers or anything like that, but if she does, do you really want your neighbor to have to deal with any fallout?

I can appreciate that you want to go with your husband—maybe your son is also relocating so you’re planning on going where most of the family will be. But I think this is the moment where you go where you are most needed. I will quote Carvell Wallace as I close out this letter: “You must first do what’s right for her and then pray for the best outcome for yourself. That’s what parenting is. Good luck.”

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a son, Kevin, who is a senior in high school. His school has a tradition where sometime shortly before Thanksgiving, students put on sketches or other talent show sorts of things in an evening after school, with most of the teachers and school staff in attendance.

My son put on a sketch last Monday with some of his friends, involving a fake-satanic ritual where they sacrificed a freshman to summon the “Asbestos Demon” to smite the school and get them out of doing their classwork. The school really did have an asbestos leak late last year, and a higher-than-normal number of freshman expulsions. I thought it was a little crude, but just a bit of silly fun.

The school staff disagreed. My son has been banned from all of his after-school activities, and was told he was lucky he didn’t get an in-school suspension. He’s worried that his teachers won’t grade him fairly after this, and the other three students who took part in the sketch have apparently been “disciplined” as well.

I think this is outrageous, but I can’t seem to find an angle in the school administration to get anyone to see sense, and I’m not sure what else I can do about it short of hiring a lawyer and trying to take legal action, which seems like massive overkill. (And honestly, what would we even sue for? And I’m sure any litigation would still be ongoing by the time he graduated). Mostly, I just am stuck and uncertain how to proceed from here. Any advice?

— Furious Father

Dear Furious,

I have several questions that I wish I could ask, because they would influence my response to you. Did the school provide rationale for the punishment? Did they provide any guidelines about what content was acceptable or off limits? Will the disciplinary action show up on his transcript, or does it take him out of activities that could impact scholarship offers (I’m thinking about sports and scouts)? How long does his ban last?

If the ban is short-term and doesn’t have future impacts on Kevin, this might just be one of those life lesson moments about how intent and impact are two different things. Your son might not have intended to be offensive or inappropriate, but it sounds like there is universal agreement that he was. This is a painful but important lesson to learn.

If the ban is long term or has implications for his future, there are a couple avenues I’d suggest you try. I’d start by having Kevin find a teacher or coach he trusts and has a good relationship with for clarity on why the skit was so wrong and suggestions for how he could appeal. They know the policies and politics and can let your son know if he has a shot at reversing this. They also presumably have a good enough relationship with Kevin that they would be willing to help him learn from the situation. I would then arrange an in-person meeting with the principal (or whoever the trusted teacher suggested) where your son takes the lead, and you both come equipped with questions, not anger. If there were not any proactive guidelines or vetting, that seems your best shot at lessening the punishment. (Nobody should blindly trust the sense of humor and decorum of a 17-year-old.) Your son might also offer to “make it up to the school” through a service project or similar.

I’m afraid I don’t know what your chances are. Be prepared that if it doesn’t go the way you want, you are going to have to model to Kevin how to accept the consequences (even if you don’t agree with them) and rise above. No matter what, you will have taught him how to respectfully and maturely appeal, and how to face the results. It’s small comfort now but may be hugely impactful in the long run.

Catch Up on Care and Feeding

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I recently made a career change and have become a full-time childcare worker after a decade of casual babysitting. I work as a regular babysitter/nanny for five families with kids between 1 and 7 years old. The plan (ideally) is for me to be with them all for at least a few years, so I could be looking at caring for older and older kids soon. I feel pretty confident in my hard skills as a caretaker, and soft skills as a trusted friend to the kids, but one issue has me stumped.

My parents were very strict and very emotionally neglectful, very much of the “children should be seen and not heard” sort. They wanted to hear as little as possible about our ideas, relationships, or dreams. They didn’t play with us or entertain our little whims. (I’ve been to therapy, thanks!) I’m very happy to pay close attention to these kids, hear all their stories and take their interior worlds pretty seriously. When they’re elated or hurt or sad or excited about something, I try to be right there with them to let them know they’re seen and heard.

But when is the appropriate time to start both encouraging them and expecting them to notice and care for the emotional needs of others? Like, you might work with a three-year-old on saying “good morning!” to the neighbors on your walk, but obviously you wouldn’t expect her to grasp social bonds and community. But if you had a 16-year-old who was completely self-centered and never asked any questions about other people, you would want to hold them accountable to creating meaningful relationships, right? I just don’t know the age-appropriate steps to get from 24/7 attention to developing a healthy sense of reciprocal attention and care with kids. From as early as I could remember, my parents thought they would spoil us with attention so I’m kind of lost here!

— Does Egocentrism Wear Off Naturally?

Dear DEWON,

The concept you’re describing is empathy—the ability to feel the emotions of other people and put yourself in their shoes. While empathy begins to show up in early childhood (in fits and starts) it continues to develop into the teen years.  See this article and this one for a couple of crash courses in empathy timelines.

So how can you help these little ones develop empathy? Describe everything. Point out illustrations in books and ask them to name how the character is feeling, then answer yourself (“he is sad because someone took his ball, and now he is disappointed he can’t play”). Describe your own emotions and why you feel this or that way. Use this same kind of language when mediating disputes between kids; don’t just make them play by the rules, explain how it feels when people steal, etc. Give them opportunities to care for others (plants, animals, people), and when they are exhibit emotions, name and validate them.

And because I love this kind of stuff, I’m going to leave you with a reading list; I hope, since you just committed to childcare as your new career, that these will be welcome suggestions for you to consider. For communication strategies that can foster emotional awareness, try this book. For a Danish approach to parenting, where empathy plays a role, try this book. And for a deep dive into psychology from the moment we humans are born, this book will get you there. Enjoy your new career and learning alongside your little ones!

Dear Care and Feeding,

This is a question that comes from a place of great privilege, which I want to acknowledge at the outset.

We have two children. One is a neurotypical middle schooler. We have all the usual fun of parenting a middle schooler, but nothing to write an advice columnist about. Then we have our 9-year-old who is much more complicated to parent—needier, has bigger feelings, has a hard time eating, sleeping, etc. She is in third grade, but we have all the same struggles we had when she was a 3-year-old (though she has grown and adapted and flourished in many other ways! Just not with regard to eating, sleeping, putting socks on, or avoiding meltdowns at transitions). She is diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and OCD.

But my question is not even about her, really; it’s about money.

We are on a path with her for supportive therapy and other additional activities. We are lucky in that we both have high income jobs, and in addition, our children have a trust that was established at their births by a relative. The trust is ostensibly for their education and enrichment, but is not legally restricted. We are the only trustees. It has enough money to pay for their college education anywhere in the country, under any reasonable (and some unreasonable!) projections, with a little left over for them to inherit at 25 (envisioned as graduating debt free with enough to put toward a first down payment—again, we are very grateful).

My husband and I are at an impasse. We can provide our daughter with the necessary therapies by paying out of pocket (we cannot find any in-network providers with a waitlist of less than 18 months). It would be about $10,000 per year and we would have to forgo some other things—restaurants, vacation, the fancy legos, etc.—to pay out of pocket.

I think we should instead pay for the therapies from her trust. This will, most likely, mean that there is less money available to her when she turns 25 relative to her brother. It is even mildly possible that we would have to have more financial restrictions around her college choice—though I think this is a very low possibility, as so many other market and personal factors would have to be at play all at once.

My husband thinks we should prioritize absolute financial equity between the two kids in the long run, and make short-term sacrifices to make that possible. He doesn’t think we should spend a dime from the trust on anything that is not overtly educational, and that we should re-budget the rest of our lives to make that possible. I think that is short sighted—there is genuine benefit to both children getting to take vacations and go to restaurants and have the occasional indulgence. Of course, I recognize that there is a benefit to me as well.

I’ve said to my husband that I think we should pay for the therapies out of the trust, and if we are ever in a flush year where we have more savings to invest then we expected, we should make sure to put funds back in her account to make it closer to her brother’s, but if we can’t, that will be ok too. It’s also unlikely they’ll ever compare notes! It won’t ever be exactly even—they will turn 25 in different years, in different markets, likely after attending different schools. It was never going to be dollar-for-dollar. And, to be clear, his concern is entirely about sibling equity, not about whether it’s an appropriate use of the trust –it’s clear to both of us that it is fine.

Am I way out of line?

— Two Sides of a Coin

Dear Two Sides,

Judging by the scale of funds you describe in the trust, I’m assuming you all are disagreeing over the prospect of a yearly $10,000 debit, rather than a one-time transaction. You both make excellent points supporting your opinions, but why not split the difference? Pay out of pocket just for the two years until she comes off the wait list for in-network services? That will be a negligible impact on the fund’s value and your family leisure, in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps you’re balking at the idea of changing therapists after a couple years, but I wouldn’t assume that will be insurmountable.

Although I love saving for the future, I don’t think that should mean a total sacrifice of the present (in cases of abundance, like yours). I’ve discussed this in a previous column, but my husband and I both invested heavily in life insurance, which was such a blessing when he passed away years later from brain cancer. I put most of the insurance payout in the market, but I retained some to pay the monthly mortgage from it. Could I have invested all the life insurance and pinched pennies to pay the mortgage “on my own?” Sure, but not for the kind of life I wanted to lead with my kids. Money is a tool, and the trick is to make it work for you.

Because of that life experience, I tend to agree with your perspective on things. Heck, we don’t even know if your daughter will choose to go to college at all, in which case saving every dollar becomes less urgent. But maybe there are ways to make it more palatable to your husband. Maybe only half or three fourths of the money comes from the trust, and you make up the rest with your income. Or, maybe, you take the fees from both kids. I can hear the comments section exploding at that suggestion, but hear me out. If funding the therapy from the trust provides the whole family for more leisure opportunities, that is a benefit for both children. A $5,000 annual withdrawal from both kids’ shares feels like a small price to pay (again, based on your characterization) for getting your youngest the help she needs while avoiding taking away things that can really enrich life and family memories. You can also keep a ledger and pay the eldest child back later in their life if it bothers you.

Final thought: no one likes to find out that they are the reason for others’ disappointments. If your daughter learns that she and her disabilities are the reasons the family couldn’t go on vacations, etc., that could have ramifications of its own—especially if she realizes there was money there the whole time.

—Allison

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